Burj Al Arab stands tall as one of Dubai's most famous landmarks. Around the world, it's known for many things: its unique design, its opulence and its seven-star credentials. Now, it's seeking to make its mark with its cuisine, and there are changes afoot to make it happen.
This month, the hotel welcomed three new chefs in a drive to become one of the best fine-dining spots in the UAE. Francky Semblat, Kasper Kurdahl and Kim Joinie-Maurin arrive with a combined total of seven Michelin stars from their most recent restaurants, having worked in some of the world's most celebrated kitchens.
Meet the chefs – aka ‘the bears’
Both Semblat, who will be taking the helm at Al Muntaha, and Joinie-Maurin, who will head up Skyview, are proteges of French chef and restaurateur Joel Robuchon, who was named Chef of the Century by the Gault Millau restaurant guide in the late 1980s, and died last year. Known for his classic French style, Semblat was picked by Robuchon at the age of 24 to work as chef de cuisine at the famed Robuchon au Dome in Macau in 2001. It was the first and only western restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars when the Michelin Guide launched in Hong Kong and Macau, at a time when Semblat was 32.
Fellow Frenchman Joinie- Maurin's vibrant culinary background in fine dining has stemmed from working in Paris and Monaco, after which he spent 12 years at two of Robuchon's restaurants, first in Las Vegas, then in Singapore, where he made chef de cuisine at the age of 35.
Kurdahl, meanwhile, will take Burj Al Arab's flagship restaurant Al Mahara into its next culinary chapter, following the departure of British chef Nathan Outlaw. His style will bring something new to Dubai in the form of traditional Northern European fine dining, focusing on curing, ageing and plating. Previously executive chef at the celebrated Le Chalet de la Foret in Brussels, Kurdahl has spent 25 years cooking across the world alongside the likes of culinary legends such as Roger Souvereyns.
Individually, these chefs make for impressive recruits, but together, they are a gastronomic powerhouse. “We call ourselves l’ours – the bears,” Kurdahl says. “Kim is panda, Francky is brown bear, and I’m the polar bear. We are a team. There are a lot of new things going on, and we use the strength of each other to reinvent and reinvigorate.”
Taking it back to basics
The three bears share a common goal for their respective restaurants at Burj Al Arab, and it all starts with produce. Their attention has been concentrated on discovering and sourcing the best ingredients from as close to home as possible, such as fish and oysters from Oman, or creating cress and salad projects here in the UAE. "Working with Joel Robuchon, there is a lot of concentrating on having a very good base in both techniques and products," says Joinie-Maurin. "If the quality is flawed, that would be cheating the guest, so we will go back to basics."
Since arriving in the UAE, the chefs have made it their mission to eat at as many restaurants as possible, embracing the local cuisine while also scoping out their competition. “As a chef, it’s very important for me to know what kind of product I can find,” says Semblat. “So if this restaurant can find it, why not me? And of course we love to eat, so we have dined in a lot of restaurants here.”
Middle Eastern flavours
With backgrounds firmly rooted in Europe and Asia, a Middle Eastern market will present a new challenge, one that the seasoned chefs are well up for. After all, while their fine-dining fare pays tributes to their native countries, they have adapted and adjusted with each move around the globe, and Dubai will be no different. "There has to be a change in approach. When I was in Vegas, it was a more European palate, favouring quite a lot of salt. Then when I went to Asia, salt was a big no," says Joinie-Maurin. "But now in the Middle East, I can see that my palate that has got used to the Asian [style] and it needs to change again. It needs to go a bit more salty, add more authentic flavours; it's really interesting to see the differences."
“The weather is also a challenge,” says Semblat. “Here, you have hot and super-hot. In Europe, when it’s cold in winter, you want to eat something different than in the summer. So for us as chefs, it’s a challenge when it comes to changing the menu.”
While the chefs are yet to finalise said menus, they tell me the focus is on creating staple dishes that don’t follow trends. Rather, they want to be the trendsetters, and it’s hoped the food will be the kind where the quality, creativity and flavours speak for themselves.
"We have been working a long time. We have already an idea of what people like," says Joinie-Maurin. "Our backgrounds might be in different countries, but at the end of the day, it's still us cooking and doing what we like, so first we need to be happy with our food and our menu, and then be open to adapt slightly to what people in Dubai like."
“We have a destination place,” Kurdahl adds. “We should not go with the mainstream, we should do what we feel is right, which is very precise taste-wise and on the plates. Building up our menus is based on European know-how with some flavours of Asia and some flavours of the Middle East, which really is what Dubai is. It’s in the middle of everything and the perfect mix.”
Upping their game
In keeping with their employer's game plan, all three chefs, too, want to raise the gastronomical bar at Burj Al Arab, using its already global image to shine the spotlight on its fine-dining offering. "We do it with wonderful food – just amazing, quality food," says Kurdahl. "That's the only solution. We will definitely bring some different flavours to what the Dubai scene is used to, but it remains exceptional fine dining.
“It’s a big challenge to cherish the old lady standing on an island,” the chef acknowledges. “To cherish it, to give it another life, another vision. We do it with all the respect of what has already happened here and what it has ever been. Our aim is to continue the growth of Burj Al Arab and the Jumeirah Group. It’s challenging to be landmarks within a landmark, but we are excited.”